The Politics of Information (Part 2 of 5)

The Politics of Information (Part 2 of 5)

2003-09-01

Part 2 of The Politics of Information, a collection that reintroduces class and materiality to the study of technocultures.

Section 2: Technocapitalism and the Politics of Information

Perhaps the most persistent fantasy of Net lore is that cyberspace belongs to an entirely different economic universe - so that technology stocks, for instance, could be hoped to gain value in perpetuity (and do so exclusively from speculative activity), or that technology work is inherently artisanal and can never be industrialized like auto manufacture, teaching, or food preparation. Digital capitalism, it is fantasized, is really some other capitalism entirely, one without exploitation (“even secretaries get rich with IPOs!”), one to which everyone will “soon” have access (the half of the planet who has never made a telephone call will be glad to hear this, if we can find a way to get in touch with them). John Monberg ‘s essay describing the failure of industrial capitalism to deliver on its utopian promise (instead of evincing the sort of blight characterized by Chicago’s Calumet region), asks us to imagine how the social relations of information capitalism will be materialized.

One of the persistent symptoms of digital-capitalist fantasy life is the curious but widespread misreading of Donna Haraway’s 1985 “Cyborg Manifesto” as a celebration of bourgeois fantasies of technoculture. Explicitly socialist-feminist in its commitments, the text of the Manifesto instead offers one of the most compelling portraits of technocapitalism as a global class war from above, the “informatics of domination” relentlessly engineering new social relations of exploitation with the new utopia-for-capital sustained by information technologies. It particularly emphasizes the accelerated domination of women in the global “integrated circuit” of production, consumption, and exchange in the social relations sustained by new-media technologies: the worldwide feminization of super-exploited wage labor in homework, flex work, sweatshops, domestic work, and migrant work; accompanied by the wholesale restructuring of health, education, welfare, worker’s rights and politics, so that the “considerable growth of membership in privileged occupational categories for many white women and people of color” is accompanied by “a massive intensification of insecurity and cultural impoverishment, with common failure of subsistence networks for the most vulnerable” (171-172).

In the interview with Lisa Nakamura that caps this section, Haraway emphasizes what her (North American) readers often forget, sometimes through “a kind of motivated refusal,” that the Manifesto first appeared in Socialist Review, “not Wired magazine,” and that her cyborg was “not a celebratory, blissed-out wired bunny.” Reflecting on more than fifteen years of reception, Haraway’s interview attempts to recover the cyborg as a figure of class analysis, a figure for an entire world of labor and lifeways arranged by the informatics of domination, “not just designers and users,” but everyone in the service and homework economy: janitors, perma-temps, motherboard assemblers, as well as everyone in service of those economies, providing the feminized labors of reproduction, including child care, health care, and a deeply instrumentalized education. Only from this focus on the biopolitical and laboring body, and “the systematic suffering built into” the lifeways of the cyborg, does Haraway build out a subsequent vision of political articulation through differences (one that has much in common with the democratic practice of hegemony theorized by Laclau and Mouffe), toward the possibilities of movement-building that Haraway terms “the informatics of resistance.”

Observing the informatic logic of increasing linguistic standardization on the Internet, David Golumbia pursues the skeptical tradition of Haraway’s work by observing the pre-eminence of English in the medium (of the world’s 6,700 languages). The system of social relations associated with the global domination of that language, together with the logic of dominant mark-up languages, has severe consequences for the possibilities of resistant deployment of the technology. Commenting on the sense of community-building that pervades Internet-utopian discourse (and which is implicit in such formulations as Manuel De Landa’s “meshworks”), Golumbia asks us to note that the various possibilities of a technology “should not distract us from understanding how the medium is actually being used.” In the case of the hypertextuality of the Internet, Golumbia observes for instance that the “active reader” of hypertext theory is in practice interpellated by net-capitalist and English-language media formations deriving “from a culturally-preconstructed taxonomy from which dissent is difficult to conceptualize, let alone practice.” Observing the role played by Internet mediation in the active eradication of conceptual and linguistic “metadiversity” in framing social reality, Golumbia’s reading of English and mark-up languages contributes significantly to Haraway’s thoughts regarding the colonization of the globe’s diverse lifeworlds by military and commercial interests. Even in such apparently disparate locations of dominative activity as biology and communications, Haraway identified their “common move” in “the translation of the world into a problem of coding, a search for a common language in which all resistance to instrumental control disappears and all heterogeneity can be submitted to disassembly, reassembly, investment, and exchange”(164). Haraway’s feminist challenge (of “coding” an alternate feminist self to the compulsory informatic logic of the cyborg), is also Golumbia’s challenge, to get beyond the version of bioinformatic logic that is disseminated “at the explicit prodding of military and capitalist interests,” an efficiency and transparency that performs the work-for-capital of removing from cognition itself “the multiple, variant approaches to social reality encoded in the many thousands of human languages over time.” Similarly: Matt Kirschenbaum ‘s study of the rise and fall of VRML provides a focused instance of the linguistic and cognitive paucity of actual networked experience.

As Paul Smith observes, the process of global capitalist dominion produces a “third world” within the First, and a “first world” within the Third, a southern hemisphere of “underdevelopment” within the borders of industrialized liberal democratic Northern-hemisphere nations, and a slice of northern-hemisphere liberal democratic lifeways in the global South. This means, for instance, the appearance of North-American style shopping malls for the wealthy stratum in places such as Shanghai, Nairobi, and Jakarta, and the simultaneous appearance of super-exploitation among the service workers, flex-timers, and immigrants living within the national borders of the United States or Germany - not to mention the revival in the “developed world” of such “underdeveloped” forms of exploitation as convict labor, piece work, the sweatshop, and so on. Many of the forms of super-exploitation, in the United States and elsewhere, are state-sponsored and compulsory, such as welfare-to-work programming, convict labor, or the refusal to recognize graduate students as workers. In economic terms, this compulsion indicates the capacity of transnational capital to employ the state to get beyond the simple exploitation of wage labor characterizing the developed world (Marx ironically termed wage labor “free labor,” free in the “double sense” of formal citizenship rights but also free to starve in capital’s reserve army of surplus workers). The state-sponsored revival of unfree and semi-free forms of labor (super-exploitation) in the developed world is one unexpected form of the “new economy” of agile production made possible by the integration of information technology with capitalist domination. Tiziana Terranova ‘s ironically titled “Free Labor” explores some of the ways that digital media capital bypasses the state in creating forms of super-exploitation. While convicts, students, and welfare recipients are generally compelled or induced to work for wages well below the rates of citizen workers by way of direct policy intervention, Terranova discusses the ways in which the ideological formations of the “digital economy” have given rise to workers whose labor is “free” in a third sense not envisioned by Marx in developed societies, labor that is literally donated to capital: “simultaneously voluntarily given and unwaged, enjoyed and exploited,” the massive and largely unpaid work of erecting the Web itself, from site-building, software creation, list monitoring, content creation through participation in discussions, blogging, posting, posing, and performing - even the labor of reading that can be accumulated as capital through the capturing of eyeball-time as profit. Particularly illuminating is her willingness to see the continuities between these forms of donating one’s labor to capital and earlier forms, such as the lengthy tradition of expropriating the labor of a life in confessional narratives, especially in such contemporary forms as serving as a “content provider” for Jerry Springer or America’s Funniest Home Videos. “In a sense, they manage the impossible,” she writes, “creating monetary value out of the most reluctant members of the postmodern cultural economy: those who do not produce marketable style, who are not qualified enough to enter the fast world of the knowledge economy, are converted into monetary value through their capacity to perform their misery.” The role played in digital-capitalist production by the whole ensemble of human social activities (what Marx termed our “species being”) is also the focus of Nick Dyer-Witheford ‘s contribution. Seizing on the spectacular size of the interactive-gaming market (in the U.S. alone, larger than Hollywood’s annual box office), he describes the ease with which technocapitalism has successfully incorporated the knowledge dimension of species being (“general intellect”), as well as some of the prospects for an other-than-capitalist elaboration of the same process. Just as the automobile represents the ideal commodity of Fordist industrial production, Dyer-Witheford argues that the video game can be considered the ideal commodity of post-Fordist production, “embodying its most powerful economic, social, and cultural tendencies.” For him interactive gaming “was a child not of the free market” but is instead “derivative of nuclear war preparations,” a “spinoff of the military-industrial complex,” emerging out of an ensemble of relations best described as a “military-entertainment complex.” As an experiential commodity on the one hand, circulating in the “smoothly integrated circuit” of global capital, one which draws on the free R & D of unpaid beta-testers as well as the profit potential of excess propaganda work from the Pentagon, gaming offers a paradigm of knowledge-based capitalism. On the other hand, Dyer-Witheford notes, the very frictionlessness of accumulation in the gaming industry points to its greater risks: just as the gaming industry seems to seamlessly incorporate the knowledge-work of the species without compensation, so does the species seem to have the capacity to enjoy the gaming commodity without compensation - through piracy, for example. The very youth whose gaming energies, desires, testing labor-power and eyeball-time are captured as profit are also dedicated to gaming without paying. Similarly, the rate of general technological innovation that creates a very cheap “upgrade economy” for the gaming industry also presents the continuous risk that the capital expenditures invested in research and development will be destroyed “before they can be translated into profit.” The material basis of gaming in maquiladora and sweatshop operations presents obstacles to the smooth circulation of gaming products: in a sped-up innovation economy, labor unrest presents the prospect of enormous losses.

But the most audacious of Dyer-Witheford’s suggestions is that gaming has potential socio-cultural consequences beyond the manifestations of piracy, hacktivism, and even the freeware manifestations (of “dot.communism”): he suggests that gaming’s utopian impulses can be considered in relation to the possibilities of decentralized democratic planning, a form of socialist participatory economics based not on the “central processing” of the state, but on the possibility of highly distributed intellection. Not merely the utopian dimension of gaming structures this possibility, he insists: “What the Pentagon has put into general circulation is not just training to kill, but training to plan.”